Photography by Kelly Yandell
At first glance, New Hope Garden looks like any other Texas garden. Broad leaves and yellow blossoms of squash stand next to tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and ripening watermelon. There is the smell of earth and the sound of cicadas. A small aquaponics system cycles water through a bed full of seedlings.
But it’s not what’s growing here that makes this garden special, but rather its unique location. The New Hope Garden is on the grounds of one of Dallas’ largest emergency homeless shelters. At Austin Street Center, more than 400 people arrive each afternoon seeking a bed and a meal before nightfall.
The ASC mission is to provide safe evening shelter and meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable of our citizens, the homeless. And now with last spring’s opening of its New Hope Garden, the center offers clients something more. It’s a feeling that often eludes those experiencing homelessness.
“Peace. I get peace of mind,” says client Roxanne McWilliams. “That’s why I’m out [in the garden] every day.”
McWilliams worked on the assembly line at a Chicago steel manufacturing company until she was let go. She struggled to find another job. “I was too proud to ask my family for anything. I lost my apartment and my little dog. I decided to use what little money I had left to come to Dallas.”
When she was younger, McWilliams gardened alongside her mother, aunt and uncle. The New Hope Garden reminds her of her family, and for that she is grateful. No matter the temperature, you’ll find her planting, weeding and harvesting several hours each day.
“It’s a place of mental health respite,” says Daniel Roby, the center’s executive director. Though the garden was built with clients in mind, staff members also love the garden for its therapeutic benefits. Roby appreciates the stillness of this newly created community space, where visitors can sit on a garden bench and find tranquility. “Being on the front lines with people dealing with chronic homelessness can be overwhelming,” says Roby. “Sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll leave my office and stroll [here] to clear my mind.”
Creating a peaceful space was one of the many goals Leadership Dallas had in mind when they designated the New Hope Garden as their beneficiary. Leadership Dallas is a regional program that connects a diverse group of emerging leaders like Roby, who was thrilled to be chosen as a member of organization’s Class of 2017. He was doubly elated when his class chose the garden as their service project, raising funds for its design, building and installation.
“I knew it was a possibility,” he says, “but I was floored when it was officially chosen.”
Each evening, Austin Street Center opens its doors to one third of the city’s chronically homeless. They restrict their clients to men over 45 and women over 18. Homelessness tends to accelerate the aging process, so both men and women in their 40s and 50s often have more in common medically with those in their 60s and 70s. On the streets, women of all ages are particularly vulnerable to sexual victimization.
Austin Street Center client Roxanne McWilliams displays a sample of the garden’s cucumber harvest.
Client Joyce Sharp enjoying the sunshine. “I love it here,” she says.
“The people who desperately need the most
nutrition usually get the least.”
—Daniel Roby, ASC Executive Director
Volunteers, including many church and civic groups, provide the 336,000 meals served annually at ASC. And while meals vary from day to day, McWilliams says “we eat a lot of carbs.” Joyce Sharp, another client, is quick to add “Sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches.”
Like McWilliams, Sharp enjoys the garden and looks forward to eating more vegetables after it’s well established. She once kept a vegetable garden with her husband in Oklahoma. After he died, Sharp spent some time in jail and later found herself with nowhere to go after her father refused to take her in. She’s been to several local shelters, but once she found ASC she knew she’d found her place. When asked why, Sharp’s answer was simple. ASC has more room, and you get more freedom. “And you get to grow a garden. I love it here.”
ASC clients deal with a variety of health problems. Sixty percent have chronic conditions like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, 25 percent have physical disabilities, and 15 percent have developmental disabilities. One of the challenges of serving the homeless, Roby observed, is that the people who desperately need the most nutrition usually get the least.
He hopes the garden can help change that. During the summer and fall, the garden’s cucumbers were added to evening salads. Both McWilliams and Sharp were excited about watermelons. And soon other vegetables will be ready for harvest.
The ASC kitchen currently has limited cooking ability, but there are plans for building a bigger kitchen that will open onto the garden. Things are currently so cramped at the shelter that people often eat their meals at their beds. Once construction is finished, people will be able to eat a nutritious meal in the expanded dining room and spend some time in the garden before bed.
Over 200 plants—peppers, cabbage, radishes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce—were planted by volunteers in late October. A new greenhouse was also installed to further expand production. Homelessness is a persistent issue in Dallas, and the need for the services ASC o ers is likely to grow in the coming years. Rising apartment prices and growing income inequality in the region has increased the strain on people with no safety net, making the possibility of homelessness a constant concern.
From fresh air to the fresh vegetables, the mental and physical benefits of New Hope Garden are many, and everyone is excited about the future of the project. “This garden is about the total wellness and well-being of our clients,” Roby said. Even though the garden is young, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “We couldn’t be happier.”
To learn more, attend Austin Street 101 at the shelter on Saturday, January 20, from 9-11 a.m. Enjoy breakfast and coffee while learning how you can make a difference. For more information or to make a donation, go to austinstreet.org.
LIZ GOULDING teaches biology at El Centro College and is a freelance writer based in Dallas. She has previously worked for Urban Acres, Holistic Management International and served as chapter leader for Slow Food Dallas. She is currently focused on the stories behind local food producers and artisans, and the ways that food unites families and communities.